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RIGHT HONOURABLE AND RIGHT REVEREND FATHER IN GOD
NATHANAEL LORD BISHOP OF DURHAM,
AND CLERK OF THE CLOSET TO HIS MAJESTY.
Nothing but a great experience of your Lordship's candour could warrant the laying what concernment I have in these papers at your Lordship’s feet. Not but that the subject is in itself great and venerable, and a considerable part of it built upon that authority that needs no patronage to defend it; but to prefix your Lordship’s name to a subject so thinly and meanly managed, may, perhaps, deserve a bigger apology than I can make. I have only brought some few scattered handfuls of primitive story, contenting myself to glean where I could not reap. And I am well assured, that your Lordship’s wisdom and love to truth would neither allow me to make my materials, nor to trade in legends and fabulous reports. And yet, alas ! how little solid foundation is left to build upon in these matters! So fatally mischievous was the carelessness of those who ought to have been the guardians of books and learning in their several ages, in suffering the records of the ancient church to perish. Unfaithful trustees, to look no better after such divine and inestimable treasures committed to them. Not to mention those infinite devastations that, in all ages, have been made by wars and flames, which certainly have proved the most severe and merciless plagues and enemies to books.
By such unhappy accidents as these, we have been robbed of the treasures of the wiser and better ages of the world, and especially the records of the first times of Christianity, whereof scarce any footsteps do remain. So that in this inquiry I have been forced to traverse remote and desert paths, ways that afford but little fruit to the weary passenger : but the consideration that it was primitive and apostolical, sweetened my journey, and rendered it pleasant and delightful. Our inbred thirst after knowledge naturally obliges us to pursue the notices of former times, which are recommended to us with this peculiar advantage, that the stream must needs be purer and clearer, the nearer it. comes to the fountain: for the ancients (as Plato speaks“) were κρείττονες ημών, και εγγυτέρω θεών οικούντες, “better than we, and dwelt nearer to the gods.” And though, it is true, the state of those times is very obscure and dark, and truth oft covered over with heaps of idle and improbable traditions, yet may it be worth our labour to seek for a few jewels, though under a whole heap of rubbish.
" Is not the gleanings of the ancients (say the Jews) better than the vintage of latter times?” The very fragments of antiquity are venerable, and at once instruct our minds and gratify our curiosity. Besides, I was somewhat the more inclinable to retire again into these studies, that I might get as far as I could from the crowd and the noise of a quarrelsome and contentious age.
a In Phileb.
My Lord—We live in times wherein religion is almost wholly disputed into talk and clamour; men wrangle eternally about useless and insignificant notions, and which have no tendency to make a man either wiser or better: and in these quarrels the laws of charity are violated, and men persecute one another with hard names and characters of reproach, and, after all, consecrate their fierceness with the honourable title of zeal for truth. And what is yet a much sorer evil, the peace and order of an excellent church, incomparably the best that ever was since the first ages of the gospel, is broken down, her holy offices derided, her solemn assemblies deserted, her laws and constitutions slighted, the guides and ministers of religion despised, and reduced to their primitive character, “the scum and offscouring of the world.” How much these evils have contributed to the atheism and impiety of the present age, I shall not take upon me to determine ; sure I am, the thing itself is too sadly visible; men are not content to be modest and retired atheists, and, with the fool, to say only in their hearts," there is no God :” but impiety appears with an open forehead, and disputes its place in every company; and without any regard to the voice of nature, the dictates of conscience, and the common sense of mankind, men peremptorily determine against a Supreme Being, account it a pleasant divertisement to droll upon religion, and a piece of wit to plead for atheism. To avoid the press and troublesome importunity of such uncomfortable reflections, I find no better way, than to retire into those primitive and better times, those first purest ages of the gospel, when men really were what they pretended to be, when a solid piety and devotion, a strict temperance and sobriety, a catholic and unbounded charity, an exemplary honesty and integrity, a great reverence for every thing that was divine and sacred, rendered Christianity venerable to the world, and led not only the rude and the barbarous, but the learned and politer part of mankind in triumph after it.
But, my Lord, I must remember that the minutes of great men are sacred, and not to be invaded by every tedious impertinent address. I have done, when I have begged leave to acquaint your Lordship, that had it not been more through other men's fault than my own,
months since waited upon you in the number of those public congratulations which gave you joy of that great place which you worthily sustain in the church. Which that you may long and prosperously enjoy, happily adorn, and successfully discharge, to the honour of God, the benefit of the church, and the endearing your Lordship’s memory to posterity, is the hearty prayer of,
Your Lordship’s faithfully devoted servant,